Review of Suas Gu Deas From Amazon (24 August 2009)
`Suas gu Deas' translates as `up south' - that counter-intuitive phrase that is so deeply embedded in the Uist culture that to attempt to correct the usage is to invite the scorn of the affronted. I should know, being one of the regularly scorned. I should lighten up, I know, but it's one of those phrases that irritate the ear like fingernails scraping across a blackboard. It's down south. Always has been, always will be!
At least that's what I've always pedantically, stubbornly insisted, until I found myself chuckling at Angus Peter Campbell's diary sketch at the back of this book - a collaboration with Cailean MacLean, the acclaimed photographer and son of much-loved South Uist GP, Alasdair MacLean (who in turn is the brother of the famous poet, Sorley). The sketch is of an upside-down Western Isles with compass arrows pointing down for tuath (north) and up for deas. I then noted the book's subtitle: `Two Hebrideans walking from the Butt to Barra Head' and supposed that if you were travelling from a Butt to a Head, you would generally be moving up the way.
So I may have to concede that there's merit in the phrase after all. Undoubtedly readers will be thankful to note that Angus Peter offers a less crude and better researched validation than I do: one that universalises a term I had always thought of as peculiar to these islands. It seems I may be in a global, as well as a local, minority on this vital issue.
A friend and I have often spoken of a project we would like to undertake when our Open University studies are completed. She is learning the art of photography while I am learning the art of literature and creative writing. The project, of course, is an illustrated travelogue and it seems we're not the only people in the world to have had this conversation. And as this book proves, we're not even the only people in the Hebrides to have come up with the idea. `Suas gu Deas' is that idea brought to life by two of the Hebrides' most significant contributors to their chosen arts, both of whom have travelled remarkably similar journeys since childhood, growing up, as they did, within miles of each other in South Uist beforemoving to the mainland and eventually settling in Skye.
What one might expect from a book of this kind is a documentary of a journey during which many interesting characters are met and many beautiful sights are appreciated. Not only are we not disappointed, but there's much more here than that. The simple yet eloquent prose style of Angus Peter Campbell is further enriched by his often frank, but always honest, musings on everything from the poignant story of a hired driver in Sarajevo to Iain Crichton Smith's fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte, and Cailean MacLean's stunning photographs are described through the resurrected voices of some of Gaeldom's most famous `torch-bearers': sharing the pages with Iain Crichton Smith are quotes from Margaret Fay Shaw, Martin Martin and Fr Allan MacDonald, among others. I am reminded of T S Eliot's assertion that no artist exists alone but rather `his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists' creating `conformity between the old and the new.' This collaboration then, is more than just the sum of its parts, but draws inspiration from and adds further value to a rich cultural history that has been centuries in the constructing.
Talking of sums, it should be no surprise to anyone who understands `Uist time' (where mañana is a bit on the pacey side) that this two week walk `up' the islands began in early June yet finished in mid-July. The reason, however, is mundane: both had prior commitments that meant that the two weeks of walks were separated by a month's break. Time, as Angus Peter points out both in his diary and in the poems he shares here has many contradictory qualities: dragging and rushing, weighing heavily and lightly. In the reading of this book it is another quality of time that one is most likely to experience - it stands still while the compelling words and pictures hold one in a grip that is only loosed when the final page is turned. It is only on raising ones head to the clock that the spell is broken and there is a realisation that time has indeed passed during this magical journey 'Suas gu Deas'. My friend and I will have to travel some distance to even come close to this.